How to Build Muscle for Beginners

Written by Paul Dermody

Ironically, chasing that toned look leads people to neglect lifting weights and focus on random high-intensity workouts.
That is a bad idea.

First, the desired toned look is the presence of as much muscle as possible.

Building muscle is a painfully slow process. Do not be discouraged. Embrace it.

Many people misplace their efforts with exercise and nutrition, but in simplest terms, think about it like this.

Nutrition regulates fat mass—loss or gain (it also plays a key role in muscle tone).
Non-exercise activity aids calorie burn effortlessly (taking the stairs, general daily movement).
Exercise is for a specific desired adaptation.

That last line is crucial.
Exercise works best when you do it for the specific desired outcome.

Stop chasing novelty (if you want measurable results)

What do I mean?
Many people want to tone their legs and end up doing random jump squat workouts with no long-term rhyme or rhythm.
Logically, if you wanted to improve at tennis say, you would play tennis. You adapt and get better.
Similarly, if you wanted to be a better boxer, you would box with those who provide an adequate challenge. You cannot improve if you don’t find better opponents.
Your skill is determined by how you train and the quality of the training.

Muscle tone is similar.
The secret is not in random workouts but in the repeatability of the workouts.

This brings me to the first key idea

1. Progressive overload

Workouts must get more challenging over time—progressive overload. Your body will not change unless you give it a reason to. If you are brand new to fitness, a light walk might be enough stimulus to increase your fitness. If you are in the weight room for the first day, learning the movement patterns is a new stimulus.
Workouts must get progressively more challenging.
This does not just mean lifting heavier each week.
It means getting stronger over time, whilst improving technical skills and control.
Have you ever tried to pause at the top of a pull-up?
Or at the bottom of a squat?
Remember, the weight or bar is not what is changing your body.
These are arbitrary tools.
What changes your body is the stimulus they provide.
They are tools offering resistance—tools that give your body a chance to get stronger.
You are contracting muscles first, then adding weight second.
If you cannot perform an exercise correctly without weight, it is too soon to add weight.

2. Form

Set a standard for each repetition to adhere to.
E.g., For squats, make sure you hit the same appropriate depth for each repetition.
If you increase the weight and maintain the same range of motion, you are progressing.
If you increase weight and you shorten the range to facilitate the extra weight, you are compensating with poor form.
It is not the bar changing your body. It is your muscle contracting through a full range of motion using that weight as a tool.
Over months and years, you will be able to assess if you have added weight to the same/better technique.

3. RPE

This stands for ‘rate of perceived exertion’.
It tells you how difficult the exercise is and helps manage progress and fatigue.
Rather than aim to add weight each week, use this scale to help you assess when the time has come to add weight.

10 Could not do more reps or load without form failure
9.5 Could not do more reps, could do slightly more load
9 Could do 1 more rep
8.5 Could do 1 more rep, a chance at 2
8 Could do 2 more reps
7.5 Could do 2 more reps, a chance at 3
7 Could do 3 more reps
5-6 Could do 4-6 more reps
1-4 Very light effort

If you perform a set of squats with 20kg, the first sessions might be spent improving form and confidence within the lift. Soon, the RPE might shift from an 8 or 9 to a 7 due to an increase in skill, competence, and strength. This tells you the time has come to add weight to the bar.

How do I know for sure what the RPE is?

Video your sets.
If the final rep in your set is performed at the same ease as the first, the set is not challenging enough.
The final rep(s) should be noticeably slower (more challenging) than the first. This tells you the muscle(s) is/are fatiguing.

4. Rest periods

Please, dear reader, take your rest periods. If you do not require them, bluntly, the set wasn’t hard enough. To do a set of squats or deadlifts, with requisite form, control and weight should take its toll.
A sign that something is off is that you only need a few seconds of rest between sets.
Do not be dogmatic. Be curious.
Respect the variables. Rest times are important.

For lower reps sets of 2-5, I recommend 3-7 minutes of rest.
For moderate reps 6-12, I recommend 2-5 minutes of rest.
Anything above, 1-4 minutes rest.

Many of my clients build skills by using an EMOM or E2MOM style approach.

Exercises like pull-ups are hard to improve on, so breaking it into 1-3 reps every 1-2 minutes is an effective strategy.

OK great, but how do I warm up effectively?

By doing lighter sets of the first exercise.
If you plan a 50kg squat for reps, warm up with 3-4 reps of bodyweight squats, and then the same number of reps with 20kg, 30kg etc. until you reach the working set.

How many sets should I be doing?
Generally, 10-20 per muscle per week.
Stay on the lower side and focus on the quality of each rep.

The standard unit of your entire lifting career is the individual rep.
If your throw a hundred darts and miss every time, they are useless. Reps are similar.
Focus on skill acquisition and taking the sets close to failure. Give your body a reason to adapt.

Going beyond 10-20 sets per week is ‘junk’ volume. This is when sets do not offer any benefits and may hinder recovery.
Resist the urge to do excess.
This might be challenging if you come from group classes and associate exercise with exhaustion.
Progressing with weight is the opposite of exhaustion.
It is the careful management of tiredness and progress.

What if I don’t want to get too big?

Do not worry. That is determined more by hormones and calorie intake. Muscle occupies approx. 20% of the space of fat tissue so theoretically muscle makes you look smaller. Muscle tone is muscle minus fat mass.
Much of what you compare yourself to are influencers on steroids. Yup, females too. An increasing number. Trust me, do not worry about bulkiness.

Should I improve every workout?

You will get stronger over time, but not every session. You will have bad days, sleep poorly, be hungover or lack motivation. What matters is that the workouts get done.
Do not be afraid to strip back the weight and focus on form, especially if your body is telling you to.

Can I add more exercises if I feel like I can?

Not without good reason. Sometimes less is more. Get your programme set up so that you can repeat and improve the skills needed to achieve the outcome that you want.

What if I already know what to do but have not seen results?

Gently, those who say they know exactly what to do miss out on valuable insights.
Take someone that knows they need to hit appropriate depth in a squat.
The first person collapses quickly, then bounces back up using momentum rather than muscles.
The second person slowly lowers themselves and pauses briefly before coming back up.
Who do you think will progress over the long run?
Who possesses the skill to address their thinking if/when they hit a plateau?

Does my exact programme split matter? (Example: full body, lower/upper, push/pull/legs)

If you stick with the principle of 10-20 sets per week, then programme design matters less. Enjoyment and adherence matter more once that is catered for.
If you want to perform 16 exercises for back per week, you could do 4 x full-body workouts with 4 sets per session for back. Similarly, a 2x upper/lower split could have 8 sets per session for back.
The programme is less relevant than the weekly total.

Anything else to consider?

Remember these three principles of strength training;

Volume: see above (10-20 sets). Volume is, simply put, how much work you do. Smaller muscles (like biceps) may require the lower end as they get hit with big movements like pull-ups. Resist black-and-white thinking here. 9 sets will not hamper you, nor will 21. These are general prescriptions.

Frequency: how often you hit a specific muscle group. I recommend you hit each muscle at least 2x per week, and even up to 4 in some cases keeping the same number of weekly sets.

Intensity: How challenging an exercise is.

You need to cater for these three for a successful programme.

If you do enough sets (volume) and a useful frequency (2x per week) but you lift too light (intensity), you do not give your body a reason to adapt.
Once you understand these three pillars, you can work within the parameters needed to change.

What about rest days?

They matter as much as training days. I recommend no less than 2 rest days from intense exercise a week.

Hang on, what about calorie burn? how do I measure it?

It is pointless. Do not worry about it.
In periods where you are not in a deficit, take advantage of this with better sessions.
Exercise burns no more than 5% of your daily calories if you are lucky, so forget about it.
Think of the adaptation you want.

How do I decide what exercises to put in my programme?

Everything you do in the gym will be a version of pushing, pulling, a squat pattern, a hip hinge and some elbow and knee work (think hamstring curls and biceps).
Your programme will be a specific set of exercises chosen from 15-20 that you essentially rotate for life.

Squat Variants

Goblet squats, back squats, front squats as well as body weight versions like sissy squats.
There are also machine squats such as hack squats.

Hip Hinge Variants

Barbell hip thrusts or glute bridges.

Single-Leg Variants

Bulgarian splits squats as well as lunge variations.

Deadlift Variants

Conventional, Trap bar, Romanian and Deficit deadlifts

Vertical & Horizontal Pulls

Pulling from above your head (pull-up or pull-down) or from in front of you (row machine, dumbbell, cables or TRX/rings)

Vertical & Horizontal Pushes

Pushing above your head (shoulder press or high incline pressing) or in front of you (flat bench press, push-ups etc.)

Isolation Exercises

Bicep curls, triceps extensions, leg extensions, leg curls, and other single-joint movements should be performed with a full range of motion and in a safe manner that is pain-free. These exercises are less technically demanding and an important part of a complete programme.

Flys can be performed with cables or dumbbells or machines and can be performed at incline or decline angles if preferred.

How do I avoid cheating my reps?

Great question.
As you fatigue in each set, you might be tempted to cheat.
I recommend having a rough tempo for each rep.
3 seconds down, 1 second up.
Say you are doing squats. Each time you lower, do so for 3 seconds then 1 second on the ascent.
This will help maintain the integrity of the technique when your impulses are saying to stop.
You must push your body to change it.
This will also help you maintain the same range of motion for each rep.
In most gyms, you will see people doing half-reps with heavy weights.
Instinctively, their body knows that certain parts of the range are unpleasant (bottom of a squat), and that is precisely why you must get skilled down there.

To conclude

Do not overwhelm yourself. These Principles are guidelines, not absolutes.
Individuality is the key to success, so spend a little time figuring things out for yourself.
Reach out to me personally if you need any further help.

Happy lifting.

Get in touch with Paul today